The cost of a range clearance.

It has been revealed that firing ranges used by the NZDF while deployed to the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamyan Province, Afghanistan, contained unexploded ordnance that caused numerous deaths and injuries after the NZDF withdrew the PRT in April 2013. In 2014 seven children were killed when an unidentified high explosive device detonated after they brought it back to their village. In the five years following the NZDF withdrawal seventeen people were killed and several dozen injured by unexploded munitions they encountered in and around the five firing ranges used by the PRT during its 12 year mission in Bamyan. While all of the ranges were used for small arms training, two, the Beersheba and Dragon ranges, also were used for training with high explosive rounds, including grenades, shoulder fired mortar shells/rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and armour piercing heavy caliber bullets. It was near the Beersheba range where the children found the munition that killed them.

The NZDF claims that it had cleared over ten tons of unexploded ordinance from the Bamyan ranges before it left the province. This was done early in the PRT tour because the ranges had been used by Russian, US and Afghan forces in the years before the NZDF arrived, and the concern was the safety of NZDF troops when using those ranges. After the NZDF left, it contracted with the Afghan Directorate for Mine Action Coordination (DMAC) to have contractors clear the ranges. In October 2013 this was supposedly done, to what the NZDF calls an Afghan government approved standard.

After the children’s deaths the standard was lifted to a UN approved level. From then on negotiations were enjoined to determine who should do subsequent clearing of the ranges, what the costs would be and when they should begin. In 2018 the NZDF agreed to pay US$10 million into a fund operated by the UN for employing explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) contractors to engage in follow up clearance of the ranges. The delay in agreeing to the payment was differences between the NZDF/MoD and the US Department of Defence (DoD) over the cost of the job. If I understand correctly what the NZDF has said on the matter, the US wanted NZ to pay US$48 million for clearing all of the Bamyan ranges, whereas NZ wanted to pay much less and only help clear the Beersheba and Dragon ranges. The US$ 10 million dollar sum appears to be the cost of the latter. The key thing to remember here is that while people were being killed and injured by ordinance on those ranges, the US and NZ were arguing about the cost of clearing them.

The NZDF claims that the contractors who did the October 2013 clearance were approved by the Aghan government. The raises questions about the tender and contract-letting process. Who were these contractors? Did the NZDF have any say in their approval? How was the handover between PRT EOD personnel and the contractors handled (since the NZDF EOD operators would have had maps of the ranges that indicated where they had cleared unexploded ordinance fired by NZDF troops as well as any incidental unexploded ordinance (UXO) found on them)?

The October 2013 range clearance done by the contractors was of a type known as a “surface clearance.” As the name implies, this means visually inspecting the range for any unexploded ordinance lying on the above-ground surface. This might include inspections under loose rocks and on slips or crevasses in the mountainous terrain of the area.

The NZDF has made the accurate point that given the amount of ordinance fired on the ranges over the years by multiple armed services from several countries, it is near impossible to determine if the munitions that are killing and injuring people came from the NZDF or another military. That would require shell fragments, explosive residue or other evidence of source, none of which is available. The NZDF notes that in terrain like that of Bamyan, with weather like that of Bamyan, unexploded rounds can last and lie undetected for years and be carried out of the ranges by landslides, snowmelt, floods and other natural events as well as people. The latter point is not as silly as it might seem: in countries such as Afghanistan scrap metal scavenging is an important source of income for impoverished communities, and firing ranges are a treasure trove of scrap metal in the form of bullet casings and other metallic debris of war. For children, some of this debris is an irresistible toy. For all who tread there by choice or innocence, venturing onto an inactive firing range is an invitation to disaster.

What the UN standard of range clearance demands, and what the US and NZ were negotiating about, is what is known as a “subsurface clearance.” This requires the use of metal detectors and other means of locating live explosive objects underground, usually up to depths of two meters given the munitions (such as those of the NZDF) used on the ranges. This raises several questions.

Knowing that it had fired three types of high explosives on the Beersheba and Dragon ranges (some of which were duds) and knowing that some of them were capable of penetrating into the ground rather than just ricochet off of the surface, why did the NZDF agree to a surface clearance even if it conformed to an Afghan government standard? Was it told that the initial clearance would be subsurface in nature only to have that changed to a surface clearance after it left, or did it assume that a subsurface clearance would be the case? One would think that as part of the handover and contracting process with regard to the post-PRT range clearances the NZDF would have informed DMAC about the presence of unexploded high explosives on those ranges and in return be provided with explicit knowledge of what type of clearance would be conducted in October 2013. If it agreed to a surface clearance knowing that it had potentially unexploded ground-penetrating high explosives on the ranges, then that would be a dereliction of its duty of care to the civilian population of the area.

One also has to ask about the role of the Afghans. After the NZDF withdrew from Bamyan, who gained control over the ranges? The Afghan National Police (ANP), the Afghan National Army (ANA), the DMAC or some other government entity? Were the ranges sign-posted and/or fenced off? Or were the ranges left open? Whatever the answer, there appears to have been some serious dereliction of duty on the part of those who inherited control of the ranges after the NZDF left.

Under Protocol Five of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), countries are responsible for disposing of the Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) after they leave the area in which they operated. The responsibility is not legally binding and often ignored, but is the likely reason why the US and NZ negotiated the second round of range clearances with the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS). That is important because in effect, the responsibility to “clean up” does not end when an armed organisation leaves an area–the issue is not about present control but of past usage.

To be clear: NZ has no enforceable legal liability for leaving subsurface UXOs uncleared after it abandoned the Bamyan PRT, even though the NZDF was aware of the possibility of their existence. Those UXOs were likely not fired from NZDF weapons but given the history of the ranges, the NZDF was quite likely aware of their presence simply because US forces had used the ranges and very likely mapped them out for their own protection, then handed them over to the PRT as an allied ISAF force.

The NZDF did have a moral-ethical responsibility to consider the non-combat consequences of leaving the ranges cleared to a surface standard given what had been fired in them. Since the stated purpose of the PRT was about nation-building, hearts and minds and the rest of that mission palaver, it seems that something got lost at the end.

None of that matters. According to the UNCCW protocol five on ERW, the NZDF and NZ government were obligated by international convention to assume responsibility for the initial and subsequent range clearances. That the NZDF failed to do so in the initial tender and handover to the first post-deployment EOD contractors, and that it took five years to negotiate a price for its participation in the obviously necessary follow-ups to what was clearly an inadequate job in October 2013, tells us something about the value placed by the NZDF on the lives of Afghanis, including their children.

Prime Minister Ardern said that she was first informed of the issue in 2018 and now, after the matter became public, has told the NZDF that it has been moving too slowly and needs to speed up its involvement with the UNMAS-led subsurface clearance process. This begs the question as to why she was not informed earlier about was a thorny military-diplomatic issue, which in turn raises yet again the matter of NZDF transparency and accountability to the government of the day.

By all public accounts, the Bamyan ranges do not contain unexploded ordinance from “heavy” air assaults or artillery, including cluster bombs, white phosphorus rounds or 500 to 2000 lb. bombs. If that were the case the whole story changes dramatically in several ways, including on the subject of responsibility. Assuming that they were only used for small arms and limited high explosive weapons training, then the US$10 million price tag for NZDF participation in the UNMAS clearance efforts in two abandoned firing ranges seems high but reasonable if it involves compensation to relatives of victims, deployment of NZDF EOD specialists back to assist in the range clearing efforts and/or paying the for salaries and equipment for honest and professionally competent EOD contractors. That is is predicated on UNMAS hiring EOD contractors that are not corrupt, incompetent or cronies of local officials and instead are totally dedicated to eradicating the deadly residue of a conflict supposedly gone past.

In the end, this is another reminder of the legacies of war and the unfinished business that remains long after troops come home. Because for those living in places like Bamyan, the war does not end when the foreigners leave.

2 thoughts on “The cost of a range clearance.

  1. The Veteran

    Pablo … a very fair and balanced post. Your last sentence particularly. In Vietnam the VC lifted many thousands of mines from the infamous Horseshoe minefield and used them against ‘us’ especially in the Long Hai Mountain area now a popular tourist area. When I was back there a few years ago there were numerous signs telling people not to venture off the tracks and every so often you would hear an explosion caused by some animal tripping a wire.

  2. Pablo Post author

    Thanks Veteran,

    Much appreciated. When I was on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border during some USG advisory work in the 1980s we had to be very careful with anti-personnel mines that were suspended or attached with trip wires to trunks and branches at approximately nose level in amongst the foliage on jungle trails (using large leaves and vines as cover). Machete or push a vine or bush aside or brush a leaf away and one would get a serious haircut. Only as I was leaving the theater did my local counterparts tell me that they were set at that height because the enemy knew that “gringos” were in town and being taller than the locals, got this as a special welcome to the fight. If I remember correctly, this tactic was supposedly taught to the locals by the Cubans, the latter having learned from the Vietnamese.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.